Friday, 3 January 2014

When Lightning Strikes

Teaching children from Nankufi about lightning safety

The much needed rains have finally arrived in Malawi and local people breathed a sigh of relief as they planted their maize to ensure they have sufficient food for next year.

The rains are often accompanied by spectacular storms including deafening thunder and lightning that lights up the sky for tens of kilometres in the distance.

I was at the Book Bus home in Malawi, Fisherman’s Rest when the first storm stuck southern Blantyre. We had just arrived back from another fantastic day at Mpemba school. We had read a story from Kenya about a shepherd boy who looked after his herd. The children loved it as they could all relate to the responsibility of looking after their precious animals. I had already prepared the lesson for next day sitting in our Book Bus Matilda, and was walking back to my room as I looked out over the Great Rift Valley. Enormous dark and menacing clouds had gathered and were moving quickly across the sky. Large sheets of lightning flashed across the horizon followed by the deafening roar of thunder. I hurried on to my room and sat watching nature at its fiercest.

The storm lasted for about an hour and as I stepped out I could see floods of water streaming down the road, branches of trees hanging off trunks and stones upturned.

It wasn’t until the next day that we heard the tragic news that two children at nearby Mbame school had been stuck and killed by lightning during the storm. We were all really shocked and deeply saddened.  After some investigation we found out that there was little information in our local communities as to what to do to help people stay safer in a lightning storm. The Book Bus has strong working relationships with schools in the communities we are based so we approached the Head Teachers to see how we could help.

The volunteers on the Book Bus along with colleagues from Fisherman’s Rest put together a short information drama with five simple actions that might help children stay a little safer during a lightning storm.  Using simple props and puppets from the Book Bus the children learnt not to shelter under umbrellas or trees, not to carry water on their heads, to take shelter in fields in a ditch and not to shelter under metal roofs if they are not earthed. We then had a quiz to test whether the children remembered the key facts. The children did really well in the quiz and we asked that they share this information with their communities back in the village.

Hundreds of people die every year in Malawi during lighting storms. Cascading information using community networks is a powerful way to get a safety message to as many people as possible.

By mid December the Book Bus volunteers had visited seven schools reaching over 3,000 children. Schools broke up in December so the information sessions will continue after the holiday period.

The Book Bus isn’t just about bringing books, arts & crafts and games to schools. We’re very much part of the community we operate in so where we can help share information from school to school and village to village, we are delighted to do this.

Education comes in many forms and with our 'mphenzi' safety dramas we hope we engaged the children as well as getting them to remember crucial safety tips.

Marian Forkin